Poetry: Divine Comedy - Purgatory, Cantos 31–33 | clivejames.com
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Purgatory, Cantos 31–33

“You that are on the sacred stream’s far side,”
She said again, turning to me the tip
Of her speech whose mere edge had hurt my pride
Sharply enough, “speak now. Unlock your lip.
The accusation needs, if this be true,
Confession joined to it.” My wits were so
Confused that what my voice set out to do
Began, but past my lips it could not go.
She let up just a little, then she said
10 “What are you thinking of ? Pray answer me,
For those sad memories are not yet dead,
Slain in you by the stream.” Uncertainty
Mixed with unbridled fear drove forth a “yes”
From my mouth that to hear you had to see.
Just as a crossbow, wound with too much stress
Breaks, when it shoots, both in the bow and cord,
And sends the shaft with less force to the mark,
So, broken by that heavy charge, I poured
Forth tears and sighs, and my trapped voice went dark,
20 At which she said “In the desires you had
For me which led you in the love of good
Beyond which nothing that can make us glad
Is to be longed for, what could have withstood
Your hopes of progress? What chain or cross-ditch?
And what attractions and advantages
Seemed prominent in other things, by which
They so diverted your allegiances?”
Heaving a bitter sigh, I strained my voice
To answer, and my lips just managed this:
30 “As soon as your face vanished, all my choice
Was for the present day and its false bliss.”
And she: “Had you kept silent, or withdrawn
What you confessed, your fault would still be plain,
Known to the judge of everybody born.
But when a man’s own cheek bathes in the rain
Of shame for his own sin, then in our court
The wheel turns back against the sword’s edge. Yet,
In order that you bear the shameful thought
Of how you wandered, and thus duly get
40 More strength when you, in other times, are brought
Within the range of sirens, pray forget
The tears and listen. Hear of the straight way
My buried flesh would have consigned you to.
Never did art or nature, night or day,
Present such loveliness of form to you,
As that which harboured me, and it is gone—
Crumbled to dust, and if thus, by my death,
The highest beauty, as you’ve journeyed on,
Has failed you, then what was there, drawing breath,
50 That could have drawn you to it by desire?
Truly you should have, when the first shaft struck
Of lying things, trailed me as I went higher
Since I deceived no more. No girl with luck
Of looks, or other vanities of brief
And little worth, should ever have weighed down
Your wing to take more hits, and all the grief
That goes with them. New chicks have the renown
Of waiting as the shots fly, two, three, four.
The same is not true for the full-fledged bird,
60 Not when he sees the deadly net spread, or
The arrows climb.” Just as, without a word,
A shamed child stands with eyes fixed on the ground,
Acknowledging its fault while listening
Repentant, I stood there and made no sound.
She said: “Since hearing sets you sorrowing.
Lift up your beard and get your grief by eye.”
The wind from our land, or from where the king
Iarbas rules in Africa, may try
To rip the oak out but it’s no tough thing
70 Compared to my resistance when I raised
My glance at her command, since by “your beard”
She meant a face still young and thus amazed
By its new hair, and venom to be feared
Was in her argument. And when my sight
Was lifted, it saw how those angels paused
In scattering their flowers with delight.
My eyes, whose lack of confidence she caused,
Saw Beatrice turn towards the beast whose one
Person is in two natures. Veiled beyond
80 The stream, to me she seemed to have outdone
Her former self, when still she knew the bond
Of life with mortals, and surpassed them all.
The stinging nettle of remorse was such
That out of everything I could recall
That which most bent me to its love was much
More hated now. Self-knowledge bit my heart,
And down I fell, and what I then became
She knows who caused it. When I was in part
Restored to sense, Matilda, that self-same
90 Lady I’d found alone, now watched me float
While she said “Hold me, hold me.” In the stream
I was immersed as far up as my throat,
And she drew me behind her. Like a dream
Of lightness, lighter than the little boat
Whose name recalls the shuttle of the loom,
She passed across the water. We drew near
The blessèd further shore, where I heard bloom
“Purge me,” a song so clearly sweet to hear,
I can’t recall it, far less put in ink.
100   The lady spread her arms, then clasped my brow
And pushed me under, where I had to drink
The water. The she pulled me out somehow
And led me, bathed, into the circling dance
Of those four fair ones, and each with her arm
Embraced me, and they sang “By law, not chance,
Here we are nymphs with forms of earthly charm,
But in the sky we’re stars. When Beatrice
Descended to the world, we were ordained
Well in advance to be her handmaids. This
110   Is still our function. So far, you have gained
The sight of her but not yet seen her eyes.
Within their happy light three virtues shine.
Beside their radiant depth our dazzle dies,
Because their theological design
Sees more, and you will too, with all disguise
Laid open by your sharpened glance.” They thus
Began to sing, and brought me to the breast
Of their great beast, when Beatrice turned to us
And they continued: “See you don’t arrest
120   Your gaze. The holy emeralds are displayed
By us for you to see: gems by which love
Once loosed its darts.” And then my eyes obeyed
A thousand wishes heated far above
All earthly fire, heat holding them to hers
While here she watched the griffin. Like the sun
Caught in a glass, that creature, whose form stirs
Two beings so completely into one,
Blazed in her eyes, now with the one, and now
The other, nature. Reader, do you ask
130   Whether I marvelled at the sight of how
The thing still in itself fulfilled the task
Of altering its image? While my soul,
Full of astonishment and happiness,
Tasted that food which satisfies the whole
Of its own need, but makes the need no less
For those that eat, the others then advanced
And by their bearing proved their higher state,
As their angelic roundelay they danced.
“Turn, Beatrice, turn your glance, and contemplate
140   Your faithful one, who, for one glimpse of you,
Has come so far, and by your grace confer
On us a favour you alone may do.
Unveil your mouth to him: as your eyes were
One beauty, here’s another to reveal.”
Splendour of living light eternal! What
Poet has ever grown pale when leaves steal
The sunlight on Parnassus, or has not
Known when to check the draught from its deep well,
That he would fail to seem as if he’d got
150   Brain fever from the doomed attempt to tell
Of you, as you appeared there, heaven-borne,
With heaven and its harmonies to frame
Your radiance in a perpetual dawn,
Forever changing, ceaselessly the same—
Looking like that? And first, you said my name.
Drowned in their object after ten years’ thirst
My eyes were so intent, all other sense
Was quelled in me, but while they were immersed
In that, they had only indifference
For all else. In that way, the holy smile
Had drawn them to it with the same old net,
But then the goddesses, in their own style,
Turned my attention left. “Too fixed, as yet,”
They said, referring to my gaze so keen
10 On revelation that it still was blind:
And blind I was, as if my eyes had been
Scorched by the sun. But when a lesser kind
Of object draw my sight—lesser, I mean,
Beside the greater from which I withdrew
Out of necessity—then what was seen
Through my dazed eye was soon adjusted to,
Being within my range, and so I saw
The glorious army, after a right wheel,
Returning with the sun and seven more
20 Flames in its face. As, rounding on its heel,
A squadron saves itself beneath its shields,
Turning its colours while the generals hold
Their main face full front as that squadron yields,
Just so the holy soldiers with their gold
And guiding banners came by in the van
And thus the pole brought round the car. Again
The ladies sought the wheels, where they began,
And so the holy griffin, now as then,
Shifted its blessed cargo, showing none
30 Of all its feathers shaken. Statius,
Matilda, the fair flower-gathering one,
And I, allowed the right wheel to lead us,
The inner wheel that made the smaller loop,
And as we travelled through the lofty wood
Left empty by her fault who was the dupe
Of that false serpent and thought his words good,
Angelic music timed our steps. The flight
Of just one arrow, three times multiplied,
We’d gone, perhaps, when Beatrice from her height
40 Came down, and from them all, from every side
I heard the murmur “Adam,” and then they
Encircled a bare tree, its flowers stripped
Like all its foliage; and its display
Of branches, with no green stuff clad or tipped,
Spread wider as it climbed up and away,
Looking like piled-up hair which Indians
Would marvel at for height, they who grow tall
Trees in their woods. “You’re blessed to have no plans,
Griffin, for plucking anything at all
50 With your beak from this tree with its sweet taste,
Lest your guts twist in torment.” Thus they cried,
From that ring round the tree where they were placed,
And the animal twice-born said “There inside
The seed is kept safe of all righteousness.”
He turned, then, to the shaft he’d pulled, and drew
The car close to the foot of that leafless,
Seemingly widowed, trunk, and tied it to
The tree with just one branch of that same tree.
As our plants, when the mighty light that falls
60 On them has joined the second sign of three
(The Carp, the Ram, the Bull) for what Earth calls
The spring, begin to swell in panoply,
Their colours all renewed, before the sun
Moves on to the next stars to yoke its steeds,
Just so I saw renewal had begun
For this bare tree, whose mere description needs
The tint of Christ’s blood, less deep than the rose
But deeper than the violet. The hymn
The company sang then, nobody knows
70 Down here, nor did I have even a dim
Idea of what it meant when I was there—
I only knew that hearing what they sang
Right through was simply more than I could bear.
The eyes of Argos, without pity’s pang,
By being told of Syrinx, went to sleep:
The eyes whose long watch over Io cost
So much. If by my writing I could keep
To that same standard, nothing need be lost:
As painters paint a model, I could tell
80 How slumber overcame me, but let that
Be done by one who wants to do it well.
I pass to when I woke up, startled at
A brightness breaking through the sleepy veil,
And heard the call: “What are you doing? Rise!”
As when their master, Jesus, made them scale
Tabor, the three apostles filled their eyes
With His transfiguration and a glance
At blossoms of the apple tree that makes
The angels crave its fruit and drives the dance
90 Of Heaven’s perpetual marriage feast—it takes
Only a glimpse to leave the viewer stunned—
And Peter, John and James fell to the ground
In sleep, but Jesus, from his fund
Of rousing words found those to bring them round,
And they awoke to find their school was short
Of Moses and Elias, and the bright
Light of Christ’s robe was no more what they’d thought
Had been a transcendental, blinding white,
So I came to, and there I saw again,
100   Standing above, she that before had been
My guide, Matilda. She had helped me when
I stepped along the river. “Have you seen
Beatrice? Where is she?” I said, all in doubt.
And she: “Look there beneath that new-grown green.
She’s seated on the tree’s root, hedged about
With just the seven virtues. All the rest
Followed the griffin upward, with a song
Sweeter and deeper yet.” If she addressed
Me longer, I don’t know—I could be wrong,
110   Perhaps she did—but now the one was here
Before me who had turned my cares to calm,
And there on the bare ground she sat, so near,
Left there to keep the chariot from harm
Where that two-natured beast put it to stand.
The seven nymphs were strung into a ring
That formed her cloister. Each held in one hand
A candelabrum never fluttering
In north wind or in south, as in our land
It would. “Here you will be a little while
120   A forester, and citizen always
Of that high Rome in which Christ has the style
Of Roman. The world falls on evil days,
But for the good in it, look closely now,
And what you see, write down when you return
Yonder.” Thus Beatrice: and I, whose bow
At her command had nothing left to learn
Of the submissive, gave my eyes and mind
As she wished. Never fire came from dense cloud
Downward so swiftly from where lie confined
130   The vapours in the high air, than the proud
Eagle of Jove tore down through the fresh leaves
And flowers, and not just them. It stripped the bark.
It struck the car which, as a ship that heaves
Before the storm, reeled to the leeward mark.
Then to the windward, cast there by the waves.
And then I saw a fox jump at the car:
A starved fox, kept alive by robbing graves.
My lady mocked its foulness, and as far
As fleshless bones allowed, it turned and ran.
140   And then the eagle, from its former place,
Dived in again and rapidly began
To feather the car’s insides from the base
On upwards with its plumage, and a cry
As from a grieving heart I heard descend
From heaven: “Little boat, you’re weighed down by
Such ill.” And I saw something rend
The earth between the wheels. A dragon reared
Upward and drove its tail through the car’s floor,
And as a wasp takes back the sting it speared
150   Into the flesh, I saw the thing withdraw
Its evil tail, and wander off, and what
Was left was decked again, as fertile soil
With dog-grass, by the plumage, which was not
Perhaps intended solely to despoil,
But offered with a pure and gracious heart:
And both wheels and the shaft were cloaked with it
In less time than a sigh keeps lips apart,
And thus transformed, the frame grew heads to fit
Its holy structure. Three grew on the shaft,
160   One at each corner, and the three were horned
Like oxen, and the two fore and two aft
Had one horn from the forehead each. Be warned,
For such a monster never has been seen.
But here it was, a mountain fort. Secure,
An ungirt harlot with brows arched to mean
Sheer boldness sat there, all set to endure
As property, it seemed, to him that loomed
Behind her: for a giant leaned to kiss
Her lips, and she reached up, and they assumed
170   Their kissing pose again, and then did this
Again and then again. But then she turned
Her wanton eyes on me, and that great beast,
That savage lover, when he looked and learned
That she had done so, switched from his love feast
To beating her from head to foot, and then,
Still occupied with his colossal rage
And deep suspicion, let her go again
Enough to drag her, in his wild rampage,
Away until the wood obscured my view
180   Of harlot and strange brute, but still I could
Tell what these symbols were referring to:
For there depicted was the foul embrace
Of France and Holy Church, the latter gone
To lewd seed in the reign of Boniface,
And then, with Clement, gone to Avignon—
The car, that Christ the Griffin had left tied
To Empire’s tree, beset from every side.
“The heathen come to their inheritance,
O God,” the ladies sang. Now three, now four,
Wept and responded, singing, in a trance
Of bitter grief, a sweet psalm to deplore
What they had seen, and Beatrice, sighing, heard
Their melody—and Mary at the cross
Looked no more sad—but when space for a word
From her was left in that long song of loss
From the other virgins, she rose on her feet
10 Glowing like fire: “A little while you will
Not see me, sisters, and then we will meet.”
Echoing Christ in sight of his last hill,
She sent those seven forward, and she sent
Me with one gesture to a rearward place
With Statius and Matilda. So she went
Onward, and had not yet reached her tenth pace
When on my eyes her striking eyes were bent,
And with a tranquil air she said “Step out
More quickly, so that if I speak with you
20 You’ll sooner know what I am on about.”
And when I walked, as I was bound to do,
Abreast of her, she said “If you’re in doubt
Why don’t you question me? For I am here.”
As one who finds his voice locked in his lips
Before someone that they too much revere,
So did I speak, tongue like a foot that trips.
“My lady, you must know, you know, my need
And what, and what will meet it.” And she said
“From fear and shame forthwith I’d have you freed,
30 That you no longer seem to speak in dread
Of dreams. The carriage that the serpent wrecked
Was, and is not; but let who has the blame
Know that God’s vengeance with its sure effect
In time will come, and things won’t be the same
Always for that lone eagle without heir
That left its feathers so the car became
First beast, then slave, the rage and the despair.
I see and say it: that the time is nigh
When constellations free from all restraint
40 And contradiction will appear on high
To give these numbers—and they are not faint,
I see them vividly in my mind’s eye—
Five hundred, ten and five. These figures mean
A duke, one sent from God, to slay that thief,
That woman, and the giant whose obscene
Embrace corrupts her in their pact of grief,
And my dark tale perhaps persuades you less
Because, like that of Themis and the Sphinx,
Its cryptograms have left you powerless
50 To follow, for the fogged mind never thinks
Until the facts come in, but so they will
As they did for the Naiads, with no loss
Of flocks and corn through that wolf sent to till
The fields of Thebes with fear, and plough the dross.
Face truth, wrapped in a puzzle. Note it well,
And teach the words I say to those who live
The life which is a race to death. You’ll tell
Your tale in writing? Make sure that you give
Unhidden, all the details of the tree,
60 Which here has been twice robbed. Say what you’ve seen,
And say whoever commits larceny
Against it, or in any way has been
Violent towards it, promotes Blasphemy
Of Act against God, who for His sole use
First made it holy; and for just one taste,
The first soul, Adam, paid for his abuse
With life—almost a thousand years—laid waste,
And then four thousand more in death, until
The crime’s avenger died—to expiate
70 That mortal hunger, though it lingers still.
Truly your wits are drowsy and sleep late
If they don’t realise that for some due cause
The tree is tall and at the top grows great—
Reversed, that is. And if, without a pause,
The flow through your mind of vain thought and fad
Had been less like that local source of lime,
Our little river Elsa, and you had
Not dipped your poor brains in them every time
Like Pyramus in mulberry, there’d be none
80 Of your strange blindness to the moral right
Of this tree to require submission—one
Of scripture’s four main meanings—and indict
The eating of its fruit. And this is done
By God to show how gaining righteousness—
And here the principle stands in plain sight
In all its ramified expansiveness—
Begins with the forbidden. But since you
Are turned, I see, in your poor brain, to stone,
And, being petrified, are darkened too,
90 So that my speech strikes light from every tone
To dazzle you, this also you should do:
Bear what I say away within your mind,
In pictures if not words, as they that bring
The staff back as a sure proof, when they wind
The palm around it, that this is a thing
That saw the Holy Land.” And I: “Just as
The seal transforms the wax, so I am struck
By you; and what you said, my brain now has
Stamped into it; but still I’m out of luck,
100   Because your words are far above my head,
Longed-for but out of sight. The more I strive
The more I lose them. Why is this?” She said:
“Just so you’ll know, your writing friends who thrive
On worldly knowledge can’t, by what they preach,
Follow my words. Your path has been as far
From God’s as any mortal thought can reach—
Paths far apart as Earth and Heaven are.”
To this I said “I’ve no remembrance
That I from you was even once estranged.
110   My conscience is at ease.” A smiling glance
From her cloaked this rebuke: “You haven’t changed.
You can’t recall because you can’t recall
You drank today from Lethe, and if smoke
Means fire, then this forgetfulness is all
Your fault from that day your attention broke
Away from me and found some cause to fall
Elsewhere. But I will make my words as plain
From now on as your rude wits may require
To take them in without excessive pain.”
120   More splendid and slow-stepping, the sun’s fire
Held the meridian which shifts to match
The standpoint of the viewer. It was noon.
Just like a forward scout, should something catch
His eye, and he adjudge it not too soon
To turn and warn, the seven ladies paused
At the edge of a deep shade as might be cast
By mountains on cold streams and partly caused
By green leaves and black boughs. As they held fast,
I seemed to see, before them, from one source,
130   The Tigris and Euphrates spring, and yet
Like friends that part, each took a separate course,
Slowly but surely. “How, when they are met
Right at the start,” I asked, “are these two streams
Parted like self from self ? Light of the Race
Of Humans, Glory of Us All, this seems
Too strange for thought.” And Beatrice turned her face,
Saying “Matilda is the one to ask.”
And that fair lady said, as if she sought
To shake off blame, “But I fulfilled this task
140   Before. Of this I gave him full report,
And other things as well, and I am sure
That Lethe’s waters still left what I taught
Intact.” And Beatrice said “Perhaps there’s more,
A greater care, which often robs the wits
Of memory, turning recollection dim.
But see Eunoe, where it flows, with its
Capacity to bring things back. Take him
To bathe in that, and do what you do best:
Revive his weakened faculty.” And then
150   Matilda, at her mistress’s behest—
With no excuses, but submission when
The moment came to be obedient
In will, having received the certain sign
Of someone else’s will and what it meant—
With courtesy, her hand enfolding mine,
Said “Come with him” to Statius. And no,
I lack the space to write the smallest part,
Reader, of what I ought to sing. For so
Sweet was that draught that never would my heart
160   Have drunk its fill. But all the sheets prepared
For this, my second canticle, are filled,
And from the curb of art I am not spared
To take things further. Through the waters spilled
By that spring, I was remade. Forth I fared,
A new plant with new leaves in a new time.
The stars were there, and I was set to climb.